The goal of the church of Christ is to glorify God in all that we do (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:31). To do this most effectively we need to be unified and we need to have our best men leading the way. Therefore, though we ought not to be divisive, we should open the eldership to as many men as possible. We must not erect boundaries where none exist. Of course there are boundaries worth defending (cf. Galatians 2:11-14; Titus 1:9-13) and the purity of the eldership is one of those boundaries. It must be maintained through a rigorous testing process (cf. 1 Timothy 3:1; 5:22-25) and public rebuke when necessary (1 Timothy 5:19-21). Therefore, the plea to broaden the eldership is not a plea to accept unqualified men into the office. This is a call to reexamine our traditional interpretations of those qualifications which most often hinder men from becoming elders, namely, being the husband of one wife and having believing children.

Based on 1 Timothy 3:2, our tradition has required elders to be married men. More conservative circles have even required him to be married only once. But does 1 Timothy 3:2 require marriage at all? It appears so, but then again, Romans 16:16 appears to require that we greet one another with a kiss. It is commonly agreed that Paul does not require Christians to practice the kiss; instead he regulates a previously existing custom. He did not command the kiss (they already did that), only that their kiss be holy. This same reasoning can readily be applied to being the husband of one wife. Then, as now, it is assumed that anyone old enough to be considered an “elder”—the Greek word presbuteros literally means “an older man”—will already be married. If this is the case then Paul does not command marriage, he merely regulates an already existing legitimate marriage. Paul wants him to be faithful to the wife he already has. He requires what the Greek phrase literally means, that an elder be a “one woman kind of man.” To require marriage would be strange indeed. Requiring marriage, for Paul, would be equivalent to requiring increased distraction, anxiety, and divided devotion (1 Corinthians 7:32-35).

Another traditional impediment to a man’s appointment is the requirement that he have believing children (Titus 1:6). Based on this verse our tradition has required that a man have at least one child who is a Christian. More conservative circles have even required that he have more than one child and that they all be Christians. But does Titus 1:6 require that his children be Christians? The word translated “believing” is pista. The word can mean “believing,” i.e. Christian (1 Timothy 6:2), or it can mean faithful/trustworthy (Revelation 1:5). Context must determine its translation. There is a helpful passage in 1 Timothy 3 that is unmistakably parallel to Titus 1:6. “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive” (1 Timothy 3:4). The parallelism is clearer in the original language. “Children are believers” is tekna echon pista. “Keeping his children submissive” is tekna echonta hupotage. The parallel shows that to have pista children is to have children who are hupotage. Taken like this we ought to understand the latter end of Titus 1:6 as explaining what comes before. “If . . . his children are pista, [in other words, if they are] not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination [anupotakta].” Another important thing to consider is the purpose of this requirement. Paul does not relate this qualification to the man’s ability to convert unbelievers; rather, he says it concerns his ability to manage the household of God. “For if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:5).

If these considerations were taken seriously we would be able to broaden elderships in many places. Good men everywhere are warming our pews because, by no fault of their own, they are unable to get married. Strong leaders are kept from being the shepherds of God’s precious sheep because one or more of their children decided to leave the Lord. A church rarely grows beyond its leaders. Congregations all over are shackled to ho-hum Christianity because the men who have the ability to break their bonds are in chains themselves. We need to free our mentors. We need to pass the shepherd’s staff to more men who are eager to give their lives for the sheep.

5 Responses

  1. One fault in this logic can be demonstrated by considering the examples of the apostles Peter and Paul. Both were extraordinarily committed to the Lord. Both were apostles. Both were evangelists. Both had suffered greatly at the hands of unbelievers. Both were martyred. Only one was an elder. “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings…” (1 Peter 5:1) Paul, as far as we know, was never appointed an elder, nor do any of his writings suggest he wanted the position. How could this be? The most obvious answer: Peter was married, Paul was not. “Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?” (1 Cor. 9:5). We can only guess as to whether or not Peter had believing children, but I’m guessing he did. The point is this: if God did not provide a man with a believing wife, God did not call him to be an elder. Doesn’t matter how good they are or how well they warm the pews.

  2. “Husband of one wife” is literally a “one-woman-man.” As such, it is more the character of the man than how many wives he has had. One elder once told me of interviewing a candidate for the pulpit. The interviewee said he would not be able to accept the position if it were offered unless one of the elders (a widower) would resign since he was not the husband of one wife. Another elder pointed out that the man in question was soon to be married to the widow of a former elder and asked if that would make any difference. The interviewee replied, “No, for then he would be the husband of two wives!”

    How many times do we choke on gnats and swallow camels by accepting men who are lovers of money, quick-tempered, ignorant of the Word and incapable of teaching by word or example – and who have a strong desire to be in control (otherwise known as lording it over the flock).

    Why is this? Possibly because those whom we accept are successful business men or possibly because the “believing children” and “husband of one wife” are objective, visible traits any one can evaluate, even if he has no spiritual discernment.

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